For purposes of this discussion I am defining “the Fantastic” as that which is understood by both artist and audience as being a purposefully introduced counterfactual element.
I am going to take a moment to unpack that before I proceed. All fiction is by definition untrue, but many of the elements in any fictional work–even one regarded as a fantastic tale–are understood to be possible. Philip Marlowe never lived, but he could have. Superman, on the other hand, could not have–he is a counterfactual character.
The fact that something could not happen, however, is in my opinion not sufficient to label it as Fantastic. An author may include counterfactual elements though ignorance or laziness, making up details about a technical issue for example, and the reader may or may not know that what is being described is impossible.
What I am calling the Fantastic is an agreement between artist and audience. “We both know this couldn’t really happen, but we’ll pretend that it could for the duration of this work, okay?”
This unstated contract represents more than simply an increase in the level of willing suspension of disbelief required to accept any work of fiction on its own terms, but is a qualitative shift in the nature of the experience.
I believe that the gulf between “this didn’t happen, but we will pretend that it did” and “this couldn’t happen, but we will pretend that it could” is one not only of degree, but of kind. And I think that the degree to which genre fiction is separated from “realistic” fiction is an open acknowledgement of this.
Granting that the deliberate inclusion of the Fantastic into a work of fiction requires a greater commitment on the part of both artist and audience, the question arises: why include such elements? What is the payoff that justifies the increased expense in terms of cognitive capital?
I think that the payoff can be broadly divided into four areas; Stylistic, Narrative, Metaphoric, and Emotive. There will be some overlap and I’ll freely admit that one could draw the lines in different ways. Nonetheless, let me briefly examine these categories.
Stylistic: The innumerable subtypes of the Fantastic (and I make no distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy) are largely stylistic differences. In terms of a character’s capabilities in a narrative sense it makes very little difference if he has blaster pistol, a wand of lightning, or some sort of Steampunk enhanced revolver.
Style, however, is not something that is merely tacked on to a story. It forms the epistemological lens through which the action is understood by the reader. The plot of the Science Fiction film Outland can be mapped with some precision onto the Western film High Noon, however the style does make a difference and the former film is given a particular intensity by the existence of the Fantastic elements, as little as they may grossly impact the story.
Narrative: The “What If” school of Science Fiction–in which a particular Fantastic element is added to an otherwise mundane story in order to explore how the story changes–offers the clearest example of narrative payoffs. The plot of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, for example, could not exist without the Fantastic element of a telepathic police force.
This is a good place to point out that these areas do not exist independently of each other and that in particular focusing on the narrative effects of a Fantastic element to the exclusion of stylistic and emotive effects can lead to a story that lacks immersion. (Which is one reason why Campbell-era “Men with screwdrivers” stories tend to age so poorly.)
Metaphoric: The use of the Fantastic as metaphor ranges from Swift’s Gulliver to Singer’s X-Men. There is always the danger of metaphor becoming polemic, (and that applies to non-Fantastic metaphoric works as well) but when done with evan-handness and deliberation stories told about the unreal can illuminate the real.
The Twilight Zone television series is known for its metaphoric use of the Fantastic and when done well–for example the episode “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”–yielded some very powerful works.
Emotive: This is perhaps the most difficult area to quantify and tends to blur around the edges into the metaphoric or the stylistic or both. I do, however, believe that it warrants discussion. The most obvious example the use of the Fantastic to inspire a particular emotional response is in Lovecraft’s oft-quoted, ““The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Lovecraft put that theory into practice in stories such as “The Colour Out Of Space”. The unnatural and inexplicable nature of the threat described gives it a horrific intensity that a similar story with a mundane explanation–say a toxic chemical spill–would be unlikely to match.
Nor is fear the only emotion that can be intensified by the inclusion of the Fantastic. The loss of Mycroft the computer at the end of Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is a profoundly moving scene in large part because of the nature of the character.
All of the above is prologue to my central thesis, which is that the inclusion of any and all Fantastic elements into a work should be a deliberate act of creation by the artist. If you have a rocketship or a dragon in your story you should be able to say why it is there, and not a railroad train or a tiger instead.
One of the myriad reasons that I dislike “writing to genre” (rather than writing a story first and then deciding how to describe it afterwards) is that it encourages the inclusion of elements for no reason other than “these kinds of stories always have those kinds of things.”
Instead I encourage authors to ask themselves, “What is my reader going to get out of the existence of a magic wand in this story that is worth the additional mental effort necessary to believe in it?”
Something to consider.